2WB Dialogs: exploring plot and conflict

ConflictWelcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs, where we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

We’re experimenting with using an author quote as a jump-off point in our discussion on writing. This time it’s one by John Gardner on plot:

In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.
–John Gardner

Robine: The key element in this oversimplified plot description is opposition, that is, conflict. The problem in my novel Marshall’s Child, according to the instructor of a writing course I took recently, is that the conflict—Kat wants a baby but her husband Marshall does not—is not compelling enough. The instructor also felt that the action should more directly be focused on advancing the plot and should not be just a sequence of events.

So the question for you, Denise, is how strong does the conflict in a story have to be? How much does a story have to rely on plot, as described above by Gardner? And does conflict equal plot? Can you have a good story “whose strength,” as Gardner suggests elsewhere, “is language or structure or playfulness, and whose plot is weak and ailing?”
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Homonyms on the web

I’m not one of those curmudgeons who think young people can’t write because of texting, or the internet. Digital natives do a whole lot of writing, and many bloggers and commenters (in the better web sites) are fluent and thoughtful communicators.

However! There is a LOT of confusion around homonyms. I assume it’s because spell check programs don’t offer a correction when you write “She was given free reign.” After all, it’s spelled right. It’s just a total misunderstanding of the metaphor.

A little research shows that helpful grammarians have listed more than 300 commonly confused homonyms, so I won’t try to produce an exhaustive list. I’ll just talk about the more common ones that grate on me the worst. It will be therapeutic for me to get them off my chest.

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2WB dialogs: Where the personal meets the page

UnknownWelcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs, where we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

This week’s dialog is inspired by an article by Henriette Lazaridis Power called Embracing Discomfort. It’s on the Beyond the Margins web site, a great resource for writers.

Denise: In her article, Henriette Lazaridis Power talks about the ways we avoid things that make us uneasy, and how confronting these issues  makes us better writers. She asks “What’s your greatest writing weakness? And what do you do to overcome it?”

Those questions inspired me to approach the idea of embracing discomfort on a more personal level. I’ve always liked the quote from the poet John Berryman, “Travel in the direction of your fear.” Like Henriette Lazaridis Power, I think it’s fruitful to meet your fear and discomfort head on.

So, my questions for our discussion today are: What are the sore points in your personal life and history? How do these experiences inform your writing?

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Sandra Bullock reads the f***ing manual

Gravity-StillI saw Gravity in a nearly empty theater early on a Tuesday evening, so I doubt if I annoyed anyone by pumping my fist in triumph when Sandra Bullock desperately flipped the pages in a binder full of technical information, trying to figure out which buttons to push to avoid a fiery death.

The technical manual wasn’t meant to be the focus of the scene, but for me, it was super exciting. I’m a tech writer in real life, and I kept expecting her to fling the binder away in frustration. But the film maker didn’t go for the clichés. The information wasn’t wrong, or too hard to find, or incomprehensible. The drawings and text showed her exactly what to do, and they saved Sandra Bullock’s life in the pretend world of the movie. Twice.

Tech writers don’t get a byline. We’re often patronized by technical experts and cursed by end users. It’s generally a thankless, if pretty well-paid, task. Most of the time I have to find my motivation within myself.

So thank you, Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón, for writing a screenplay that allowed me a moment of external validation. It’s a real treat to see my kind of work woven into the fabric of a terrific story.

2WB dialogs: Outlining vs. free falling

sarah-skydiveWelcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

This week’s dialog is inspired by an interview in The Atlantic with Andre Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog.

Robine: According to the inteview, Dubus writes his masterful works longhand with a special #2 pencil (who does that nowadays?) in a cramped, windowless, basement closetlike office. I felt suffocated when I read that. It makes me appreciate my new laptop and my office’s view onto the ever-changing woods behind my house.

As Dubus described his writing process, I so wanted to climb into his rowboat with him and his characters as he heads out to sea without a compass or a map, trusting that if he keeps on rowing, his characters will point the way and they will eventually reach some wonderful island.

Or, to drop the rowboat image, it sounds as though the author’s process is to put himself in a trancelike dream state and wait for the characters to come to life and take over the action. And, apparently, in his case they do.

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Versus vs. Verse

Here’s another example of the language changing due to ignorance, which is something that bothers me because I am one of Those People.

Before anybody jumps on that statement to point out that language is always changing and it’s pedantic and fruitless to try to stop it, I’d like to say that I do know this. However, I make a distinction between:

  • changes that occur because we need new meanings and new words to express stuff that humans need to express (good or at least acceptable changes),
  • changes that occur because people are ignorant and lazy and not lovers of words (bad changes that I can’t do anything about, but that I like to complain about).

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2WB Dialogs: What’s your story?

Welcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

Robine: Denise, you and I approach the daunting task of creating back stories for our characters quite differently. Unlike you, when I sit down to write–at least in works longer than my 750-to-800-word “vignettes”–I like to have a clear idea of where I’m going. Not that I need to outline the entire novel and set it in stone, but I do need to make a road map.

Two aspects of that road map for me are

(1) creating the “what-if” sentence:

What if a woman pushing forty, who agreed to a child-free marriage to a man 10 years her senior, now wants a child of her own, but finds her world turned upside down with the appearance of 6-year-old boy her husband had fathered with another woman on the day before her wedding to him.

and (2) creating the back stories of the main characters.
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2WB Dialogs: Lively characters

Welcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

Denise: Hey Robine. I’m currently obsessed with creating some new characters for my latest story. Do you have any advice on bringing characters to life?

Robine: H-m-m-m ….[thinking] …. I don’t have much experience writing fictional characters, but the technique I use to bring people/characters alive in my “vignettes,” the little stories of real events and people that I sketch in my First Person Singular column for the Scituate Mariner, is probably similar. I try to give the reader a “visual” of the character. Instead of a lengthy, boring description of eye color, hair, shape, size, clothes, blah, blah, blah, I try to pick a couple of telling, unique features or characteristics of the person.

For example, here are two people from two of my vignettes. From “A Summer Day” (this story is posted in this blog):

John had a wide mouth, a shock of untamed brown hair, and a hearty deep-chested rumble of a laugh.

and from “Mrs. Cleveland and the Dickens:”

Mrs. Cleveland was a small lady with a scrunched-together face, a little like an apple left too long in the fridge’s fruit drawer…. Her false teeth clacked, which made me wonder whether her gums had shrunken too.

Note also that, at least in these two cases, I’ve asked the reader not only to picture the characters but aslo to “hear” them–i.e., rumbling laugh, clacking teeth.
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First lines

The Atlantic posted an interesting article in which 22 authors talk about their favorite first lines of books. Eight of the authors queried are women, and only two of the favorite lines are by women, both cited by a woman author who cheated and responded with two favorites.

Despite these discouraging statistics, I plan to continue to write, even though I’m a woman myself.

It’s a scary thing to commit to your opening lines. I often use a paragraph that originally appeared further down in the the story, moving it to the start and revising to make it work. When I start a story, the first few paragraphs are usually just warm-up. Later I weave them into some exposition or discard them.
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I want my K sound back

Whatever has happened to the K sound that belongs in all those words with two Cs? On TV I hear it all the time: “accessorize” pronounced “assessorize,” “accelerate” pronounced “asselerate,” and many more. What”s next? “Access” pronounced “assess?” Wait, isn”t that a word already?acela

This mindless mispronunciation occurs when two C”s are followed by an E.

To avoid making this mistake yourself, remember this general pronunciation rule in English: C is soft before an E or I, hard (like K) before other letters. Like this: cent, cinema (soft), cat, cot, cut (hard).

Having two Cs doesn’t change this rule. In “accelerate,” the first C is hard because it is not followed by one of the two magic vowels. The second C is followed by E, so it is soft. In fact, that”s why there are two Cs. What a compact, elegant way to generate two sounds from one letter.

OK, so its a bit tricky. But still, if you”re on TV you should try to pronounce things properly.
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